It takes a minute for "Charlie Bartlett" to distinguish itself from the movies and books it appears to be ripping off. But once it does, the movie transforms into an exuberant, unexpectedly smart comedy about the fraught give-and-take between kids and grown-ups. The title hero (Anton Yelchin) is a preppie who, having been evicted from yet another Connecticut boarding academy for assorted scams, shows up at a public school in a blue blazer desperate for the student body to love him. His mother (Hope Davis) is an over-medicated lush who's happy he's back in the mansion.
The movie smells like "Catcher in the Rye" and some of its loose offspring, like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and, in particular, "Rushmore," especially after we find out the public-school principal (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-loathing drunk who likes to wallow by his swimming pool the way Bill Murray did in "Rushmore." But Charlie isn't cynical or acutely arch. The movie seems allergic to phoniness. And Downey, who's shrewdly cast, hasn't e-mailed in his performance.
The racially variegated school Charlie has landed in is full of insecure and unhappy kids who feel better baring their souls to him in the stalls of the boys' bathroom. He sits in one stall and the "patient" parks in the adjacent one, undergoing therapy with the faux-anonymity of Catholic confession. Charlie fakes their symptoms for an assortment of shrinks who write him prescriptions, which he fills and resells for $10 at school. The surprise is that Charlie is actually a talented shrink. He asks questions that lead to actual answers. He listens.
In exchange for his psychiatric prowess, Charlie conquers the school, taming his chain-smoking, weed-dealing bully (Tyler Hilton), befriending the lovable slow kid (Dylan Taylor), and handing his virginity to Susan (Kat Dennings), the wonderful eyelinered drama girl who happens to be the principal's daughter. Director Jon Poll (a veteran film editor) and writer Gustin Nash, making their debuts, have whipped up the rare high school movie that doesn't see teenagers as jokes itching to be told or tragedies waiting to happen. It helps tremendously that every single young actor in this movie has a natural, unforced personality and a plain face you don't often see in Hollywood. They also seem as though they might have attended an actual high school.
What the movie lacks in technical polish (it's not very handsome-looking) and dramatic perfection, it makes up for in unusual social sophistication. No one is happy staying within the lines of his or her type. The slut wants romance. The suicide case wants stage fame. The jock wants to paint. Charlie the spoiled preppie doesn't want entitlement. And the principal really just wants to teach. School isn't the prison these people perceive it to be. The caste system is.
An eccentric, unfashionably corny movie grows from this organic expansion of types. Cat Stevens's "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" is performed at least twice. And Charlie appears to enjoy nothing more than sitting at the piano and singing the "All in the Family" theme song with his mother. The movie is set in this century, but its heart beats in 1971. Yelchin even has the mischievously expressive face of a Bob Fosse dancer. It's boyish, but the mysterious angles are possibly hand-carved. He could be playing a politician named Pinocchio. We never meet Charlie's dad (he's in a white-collar prison), but I'm betting it's Geppetto.
Yelchin, who was impressive as the kidnappee in "Alpha Dog," is also a striking actor. You don't notice him here until a school-play audition where he breaks character to become a flamboyant queen in something called "Misadventures of a Teen Renegade." (If the movie is even a little bit of a hit, the line "Daddy, I think I'm sluffing" will live forever.) But even when he's just listening, as he is in a couple of beautiful scenes with Dennings, he's still captivating.
"Charlie Bartlett" is just as preoccupied with the give-and-take between authority and rebellion as its peers. But this movie is unique in its unwillingness to cede ground to either side. Neither the kids nor the adults have the upper hand for long. The grown-ups, as dysfunctional as they are (namely the principal), have the wisdom of experience - and Charlie, being the listener he is, actually pays attention. The movie may well be propaganda in the student-administrator wars. But if Robert Downey Jr. wants to give me a lecture about the downside of drug use, I'm all ears.